- The Merry Tsarina and Russian Dance
- Before the reign of Peter the
Great, dance in Russia existed only among the common people,
among the peasants and lowest classes living outside the city
fortresses. The feudal nobility did not dance, but enjoyed the
amusing services of dancing clowns, who were on the whole, men.
This difference among the social
classes in the development of dance culture occurred naturally
as a result of one historical event: the Tartar-Mongolian invasion
and the subsequent destruction of Rus (the old Russian kingdom).
This invasion ruined the people's way of life and interrupted
the development of the dance traditions of its people by halting
its logical succession.
During those terrifying times for
Russia, the influence of the Orthodox Church was greatly solidified
and strengthened. Religious ideology penetrated all aspects of
spiritual culture. Under the impact of Christian asceticism,
which included a dogma that held dancing to be sinful, a profound
change began to take root in the people's consciousness of the
representatives of the privileged classes. Under the influence
of this ideology, the upper classes began to call dancing "satanic"
and its performers, scandalous.
that time in Europe, salon dancers were already necessary and
important components in social life. But, as Alexander Pushkin
wrote, Russia long remained foreign to Europe until Peter the
Great appeared. "Peter the Great's reforms", wrote
G. Plekhanov, "brought the end of the predominance of theological
elements in the outlook of the Russian people."
The nobility's world outlook altered,
in particular the attitude towards dance as an art. This transformed
dance in Russia and helped it acquire the role it enjoyed in
From the time that Peter the Great
established dancing assemblies in 1817, Peter the First's daughters,
the young Grand Duchesses Anna and Yelizaveta, were in constant
During the Peter Assemblies, the
young Yelizaveta delighted all, not only with her dancing gifts
but, with an ability for every kind of improvisation. The French
Ambassador, La Vie wrote, that the Grand Duchess "drew attention
to herself in the dances, displayed.... ease of movement, quickness
and inventiveness, continuously thinking up new figures".
A.Karnilovich wrote of the dancers
of that time, "Of the ladies, first place was taken by the
Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Petrovna; the Princesses Cherkassky
and Kantemir, Countesses Golovkin and Dolgoruky also distinguished
themselves...Assemblies were given not just once in St. Petersburg.
With the court's arrival from Moscow in 1722, a soiree was established
in the capital, taking place by decree three times a week: on
Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Besides that, there were private
balls, where there were fewer guests, but the festivities were
merrier. At these, dances sometimes lasted until three o'clock
in the morning."
From childhood, a love for dance
coincided with Yelizaveta's artistic talent and never abandoned
her. Her talent even prompted Prince M. Sherbatov, who was usually
antagonistic towards her, to write, "In youth, hers was
the perfect beauty, pious, charitable, compassionate, generous.
Endowed by nature with sufficient reason, she however lacked
any education whatsoever....Having by nature a cheerful disposition,
she had a thirst for merriments; (she) felt her beauty and passionately
decorated herself with various adornments."
After the death of her father,
Yelizaveta's carefree life continued during the reign of her
mother, Catherine I (1725-1727). "Agile, lively, full of
grace...she was the Queen of the Balls..." wrote M.Semevsky.
From childhood, Yelizaveta was
surrounded by nannies and wet-nurses, common Russian women and
girls. She absorbed more than their prejudices and superstitions.
Together with her serf girls, the Princess "danced"
and "played" ceremonial folk dances (khorovod or ring
dances) particular to each peasant festivity, told fortunes and
listened fairy tales. Yelizaveta knew many songs and dances and
was acquainted with the peculiarities of the traditional simple
folk dances composed even before Peter the Great's time. Thus
were the tastes and attachments of the future Empress formed
between the songs, games, and dance traditions of the common
people, and the Europeanised dance assemblies and official celebrations
hosted by Peter I.
Apparently, at one of the Imperial
balls, Yelizaveta performed a "Russian" dance in front
of the many gathered natives, who became upset because foreigners
were also present to see it. Unfortunately, history does not
record the exact date of this important event in the history
of Russian dance, though it had significant consequences in all
spheres of Russian theatrical and salon dances of the time.
The significance of this wonderful
fact can be explained by an entire series of psychological and
artistic reasons. On one hand, Yelizaveta was skilled in the
highest form of European style of salon court dancing, the so-called
"sophisticated" minuet. At that time the minuet was
closer to ballet seria ("serious ballet") and was performed
at balls before numerous palace guests as a unique dancing display.
Yelizaveta was also experienced in ballet dancing. According
to historian Jacob von Stahlin, the Italian ballet teacher, "Fossano
taught her and her small entourage, ballet dances." She
also studied with the French ballet teacher, Jean Baptiste Lande,
who as Nikolai Drizen wrote,- "taught dancing to Yelizaveta
herself." Von Stahlin cites Lande, saying that at the Russian
Imperial Court they danced the minuet "according to the
rules, gracefully and at ease." He added, "We can take
the example of the Empress Yelizaveta, as (being) one of the
truly superlative and accomplished dancers."
On the other hand, the Empress
possessed experience in the performance of Russian folk dances.
These skills, along with her talent for improvisation, allowed
Yelizaveta to create a new, secular style of "cultivated"
Russian dance which did not exist until then, neither among the
common people nor in the aristocracy. The Empress enhanced the
authentic essence of the commoner's dance, ( with its popular
rituals and predominant ceremonial group characteristics) with
the qualities of professional ballet grace, harmony of movement
infusion them with her own individual methods of expressiveness.
Thanks to Yelizaveta, the general character and manner of Russian
national dance began to find professional form.
The amateur noble court dancers
underlined the natural, distinctive beauty of Russian dance in
every way, and adopted it into their aristocratic lifestyle.
It goes without saying, Yelizaveta was responsible for this.
From the moment Empress Yelizaveta
ascended to the throne in 1741, a new era began in state government
politics: an intensive development of national Russian art and
culture. In many aspects this was stimulated by the artistic
gifts of the new Empress.
Merry Tsarina" (as the Empress was called) enjoyed the pleasures
of life, especially the brilliant celebrations and the theatre.
While preparing for her coronation, she ordered that an Opera
House be constructed in Moscow. The allegorical prologue Oppressed
and Comforted Russia was produced, along with a ballet and an
Italian opera Titus' Mercy. Mikhail Lomonosov ( founder of Moscow
University ), took part in their preparation.
The ballets charmed everyone. The
Happiness of the People on the Appearance of Astrea was given
as a prologue, and the ballet The Golden Apple at the Feast of
the Gods, or The Judgement of Paris concluded the program. They
were choreographed by Jean Baptiste Lande, who taught dance not
only to Yelizaveta, but also to her heir, Peter III ( who had
come to Russia), and to his bride, the future Catherine the Great
In 1744, an important event in
the history of Russian dance took place. With participation from
his Russian pupils, choreographer Lande produced for the first
time a Russian dance on the court stage. This was not in the
comic-grotesque style of the West, but significantly, in the
"high" genre of dance serieuse ("serious dance").
During the celebration, given in honor of the wedding of Peter
III to the future Catherine II ("the Great"), Lande
choreographed the dances for the opera The Union of Love and
Matrimony and The Ballet of Flowers. In fact, " at the time
of costume and scenery changes", i.e. during the interval,
"music, Russian songs... were played, and after, the dancers,
Agrafiena and Aksinya , performed a Russian folk dance... Russian
dancers, particularly Agrafiena and Aksinya, showed great artistic
quality", wrote theatre historian Vsevolod Vsevolodsky -
Herngross. The Empress was even known to have commented, "What
is Russian always has greater impact on the Russian heart than
what is foreign..." Agrafiena and Aksinya were honored with
an opportunity to speak with Yelizaveta, who gave them gold earrings
for their artistry both in the ballet and in the Russian folk
Thus, for the first time in Russian
ballet theatre history, Russian dance was performed by Russian
ballerinas on the Russian court stage. It is only natural that
Yelizaveta's former teacher, Lande, created the first "Russian
plyaska" or folk dance for the stage , taking into account
the tastes of his former student. He strived to poeticize the
dance, generalizing the interpretation of national folk dance
traditions, thereby forming the basic aesthetic principles of
Russian ballet. A theatrical turning point in dance, these principles
proceeded from the truthful portrayal of folklore, which excluded
any characteristics of ridicule or stupidity in the common person.
During Yelizaveta's reign Russian
dance found its stage personification. Thus, in the last third
of the 18th century, Russian dance contributed to the development
of realistic tendencies not only in ballet, but also in the Russian
theatre. The first ballet, opera and drama artists performed
Russian dances wonderfully on stage. At the same time, they were
creating new forms of court ballroom dances like the Russian
plyaska and kazachok, which were taught until the 20th century
in all official Russian educational institutions - at the Cadet
Corps, gymnasiums, boarding schools and institutes. This occurrence
does not have any analogy in the majority of West European cultures.
The work of Alexander P. Sumarokov
had a particular historic importance in the growth of Russian
stage dance, and in relation to dance culture in general. He
succeeded in adding a highly patriotic resonance to Russian dance
in his prologue New Laurels and in his first Russian ballet,
The Refuge of Virtue. Sumarokov's works were created against
the background of the brilliant victory of the Russian army in
the war against Prussia. Indeed, at that time - a time of political
confirmation of Russia's significance in Europe - Sumarokov created
The Ballet of Russian Men and Women. The new politics associated
with the reign of Yelizaveta confirmed the beginning of Russian
roots in a Russian national culture, not in the least restricting
the sphere of dance.
The wish to organize a professional
court theatre did not leave Her Imperial Majesty. To that end,
in 1752 she ordered that seven choristers enter the Sukhoputny
Shlyakhetny Corps in order to learn dance, music, and the French
and German languages. In September of the year, she decreed the
appointment of Ivan Dmitrievsky and A. Popov to the Corps. In
1753, she commanded that the tragedy Sinav and Truvor be selected
and learned by them. The following year, she appointed the brothers,
Feodor and G. Volkov to the Shlyakhetny Corps. The tragedies
that they prepared were than presented to Yelizaveta in 1754,
who apparently was pleased with the result. In January 1755,
by her decree the young company was transferred from the Corps
to the Palace under the command of Sumarokov. On August 30, 1756,
the Empress signed a decree regarding the establishment of the
Russian theatre and, a year later, she signed another decree
concerning the Russian Academy of the Arts, where great attention
was paid to the teaching of music, dance and drama. It is worth
remembering that Moscow University opened in 1755 at the initiative
of Mikhail Lomonosov and Ivan Shuvalov "for the sake and
honor of the country". Simultaneously, the University became
the cradle of Russian theatre in Moscow. In the curriculum, music,
singing, dancing and art were all included.
Thus, the artistic gifts of Russian
woman Yelizaveta, not only defined her personal taste and creativity,
but also played a great historical role in the development of
by Olga Vsevolodskaya - Golushkevich
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky
Balet», issue No.2, 1991
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